At some point in my career, I promise, I’ll move on from bashing the City of Asheville over its handling of the holiday water outage.
But, happily, that time is not yet here. I was spurred to write about it again this week after receiving an email from Asheville retiree Mary Ann LaMantia asking some pretty great questions.
“John, do you have any idea why the PR and/or information released by the city during the South Asheville water crisis was so evasive, and in several instances, downright wrong?” LaMantia wrote. “A catastrophe can happen anytime/anywhere but, if city officials had been upfront and honest with us as it rolled out the week after Christmas, we would have been singing their praises right now instead of demanding an investigation. Real ‘facts’ are important. Alternate facts only cause chaos.”
If I hadn’t heard similar sentiments from a lot of other residents, I might let this one slide. But really, the communications surrounding the water debacle was a disaster in its own right.
This would be a little more acceptable if the city didn’t have a fairly large, well-paid communications department. By my count, from looking at the city website and employee database, it includes 10 employees, with a total annual payroll of $653,644, including $126,000 for Director of Communication & Public Engagement Dawa Hitch.
The city’s police and fire departments have their own public information officers, by the way, and APD even hires an outside firm for public relations consulting. In short, Asheville spends a lot on communications.
I also get that some of these communications folks are handling online duties, streaming of meetings and other tasks that the public demands in the modern world. But that’s still a lot of simoleons for keeping the public informed.
To be fair, Hitch is a nice person and has been very professional and helpful to me personally in the past when I’ve asked for information. And Kim Miller, the city’s public information officer, who makes $55,128 annually, according to a city database, has tracked down a heroic number of Answer Man questions for me.
But, to put it charitably, the communications department was not firing on all cylinders during the water crisis. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Water Resources Director David Melton, and Fire Department Chief Scott Burnette handled most of the podium duties at the press conferences.
And a lot of information coming out was incomplete, confusing, or, on occasion, inaccurate.
Another round of “Water should be restored in 24-48 hours” for anyone?
‘I recognize an obfuscation when I see/hear one’
A lot of customers were unhappy with the communications while the water was out. It turns out a lot of folks aren’t signed up for AVL Alerts, which the city relied heavily on, and water customers resented being told not to wash their cars when thermometer readings were in the single-digits.
By the way, when I asked LaMantia if she minded being quoted, she had one of the best replies I’ve ever read, saying it was interesting I found her quotable.
“I was a top-level bureaucrat with New York State government for many years,” she said. “I wrote a lot of those political non-answers for politicians, so I recognize an obfuscation when I see/hear one.”
For starters, LaMantia was critical of the city for its explanation of how the three water sources the city relies on, as she put it, “weren’t connected and that they couldn’t just turn a valve to share water from the other two with south Asheville.” The city primarily relies on the North Fork reservoir in Black Mountain, but it also uses Bee Tree Reservoir in Swannanoa and the Mills River water facility in northern Henderson County.
The city tried to communicate that the system is complicated, and too much pressure from North Fork could cause problems in the south and west, but yes, the messaging was confusing and took too long to come out in a concise fashion.
LaMantia mentioned several other miscues, including lack of a warning when they first knew the Mills River plant was in trouble, inaccurate estimates on when water would be restored, calls to conserve water without a clear explanation as to how exactly that would help the south, and suggesting the situation was under control and they didn’t need state help when they probably did.
“Frankly, I stopped watching their TV interviews and reading the papers because it hurt to watch them try to convince us that everything would be fine,” LaMantia said.
I’ll add that a lot of folks found the city outage maps late in coming and particularly useless, and information about where to get water confusing. Heck, even a cogent explanation of what actually caused the problem took days to come out.
LaMantia has plenty of company in her exasperation. When I wrote my first column Dec. 30 about the outage, a lot of readers mentioned communications as a particular problem.
“There is a rule in crisis management: Get the most important and useful information out as soon as possible,” Tom Youngblood said.
“Lesley” said, “The city’s water system page on its website is also poorly designed and makes it hard to find notifications about system outages. That is, you have to go looking for them rather than them finding us.”
Martin Dyckman was exasperated with the “boil water advisories.”
“I called the city this morning to say I was tired of hearing boil-water notices on their robocalls because I don’t even have a drop to boil,” he wrote. “Among their many failures to communicate, it took days to acknowledge there might be a problem in West Asheville as well (there sure is). The next time the Republicans in the Legislature make a run at taking Asheville’s system away, I might not be as unsympathetic to them.”
Marilyn Hughes opined, “Yes, communication was disastrous as we have gone through and continue to go through this, creating so much anxiety and despair.”
I suspect they all feel they weren’t exactly getting their communications dollar’s worth.
Timeline seemed a little self-serving
Sure, this occurred over Christmas, and it’s likely some key communications folks were out of town. Maybe some of the graphics team, too.
LaMantia says she’s “not criticizing how they actually handled the catastrophe, because I wasn’t at the table and do not have the info they had as they made decisions.”
A lot of second-guessing has taken place, but considering the outage lasted in places from Christmas through Jan. 4, I think it’s safe to say that mistakes were made. The independent review committee the Asheville City Council appointed supposedly will get to the bottom of all that, although I suspect they’re not going to call folks out by name.
Also, I’ll stress again that everyone appreciates the hard-working crews who actually went out, found all the broken city water lines — all 27 of them — and repaired them. Those workers earned their pay.
But the messaging during all of this was horrible. For instance, Melton and the city said for several days that 11 city water lines broke, but when a timeline finally came out Jan. 10, it said 27 lines broke.
That’s a pretty huge difference.
“What I am frustrated with is how they disseminated information to us,” LaMantia said. “The poor guy in charge of the water department should never have been given the PR lead. Info given to the press should have been handled by the city’s PR department.”
In a previous column, I noted that City Manager Debra Campbell was essentially absent during the crisis, although she did attend press conferences.
“The only thing in this whole mess that gave me a chuckle is that Debra Campbell stayed on vacation and kept away from the podium when she returned,” LaMantia said. “If I had to guess, no one told her about it until it was too late for her to control the message. I may be wrong, but there’s something about that woman that I like.”
That made me chuckle, too. For the record, Campbell said she was impacted by the outage herself, suggesting she was in town, and Manheimer has said Campbell was at all of the city’s press conferences.
Look, even City Council members were frustrated with the communications that came out during and after the crisis. None of them are going to say this on the record, but I suspect nobody feels like taxpayers and water bill payers got their $653,644 worth of useful information.
On Jan. 10, the city released a “Communications Timeline” about the event, and it contains information about dozens and dozens of alerts, notices, social media postings and more. Honestly, to me, it’s a little self-serving and shall I say, “CYA-ish,” as it says nothing of the quality or accuracy of the information going out.
At the Jan. 10 City Council meeting, Mayor Manheimer addressed communications, stating it’s “a great time for us to kind of nail down that internal communication piece.” It’s a long quote but telling:
“But also, you know, it’s a struggle when something happens on a weekend or a holiday or an evening,” Manheimer said. “The other piece, I think, where I’ve noticed we have this conversation and that is a challenge for us is at what point does it trigger an emergency communication effort? Is this an emergency yet? Do we need to have a press conference? Do we need to set up a regular schedule of communication for the next three or four days a week or whatever? And on this one, it seemed like it wasn’t clearly recognized yet that it was going to be a full blown emergency. And it sort of simmered at first.”
Yes, the city missed the boat on communications. And when you’ve got an entire department devoted to the topic, it’s time for some serious self-reflection, and probably an overhaul on how you conduct your operation.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org